A Cento for Rachel Pollack


For Grievers – Poetry – Practices for Soul & Spirit – Tarot

The first three days 

After a month

Forty-nine days 

The first anniversary 

Nine years of anniversaries 

These are all markers of time for accompanying our beloveds after their death. They take us to the burial or memorial service and beyond. We so need the beyond because the honor of mourning and the work of grief are not done quickly. 

These markers of time come from traditions that are old. You might recognize them as Jewish or Buddhist or Dominican Catholic. But they are also recently invented.  This work of invention might be best described with the words that Ellen Lorenzi Prince gives to the Welsh Goddess Cerridwen in the Dark Goddess Tarot: “Craft anew with the bones of the old.” 

The old bones of tradition can become brittle and when we follow them without thinking they don’t serve us. But renew them with fresh fire of inspiration and the deep waters of grief and their power is restored.   

The number is less important than the intention. The number is so much less that all that flows from our broken open heart. 

Right now I am grieving my beloved Tarot teacher and friend Rachel Pollack along with so many others. Maybe you reading these words are grieving her, too. How are you marking these first days without her here on earth with us? 

As I am writing these words a thought sparks in my mind that this approach would work for Rachel! She starts her A Walk Through the Forest of Souls (being reissued by Weiser on May 1 so get yourself a copy) with a gallery of quotations that includes one from her novel Unquenchable Fire: “There are no rules except discovery. There is no tradition but invention.” 

After the last memorial circle following my late partner John’s sudden death, all the official happenings were over, but I wasn’t done. I had the idea in my mind that something happened after 40 days so I googled that. I didn’t get 40 days but 49 days from the Buddhist tradition. I didn’t follow Buddhist tradition, but I started counting 49 days from John’s death date and arrived at the Winter Solstice 2012. You may remember all the hullabaloo around that day being either the end of the world or the re-birth of the next one. I smiled and laughed and cried for that being John’s 49th day—he’d need a day that big to travel out of life into death. I  stumbled my way through to the 21st with daily prayers and a huge bonfire at the end. 

I’ve continued the practice for others close to me—my mother in 2020—and sometimes those I don’t know—those killed by the police, for example—but who are part of our collective story as a country. My prayers and practices vary depending on the person. 

On Saturday—the day after her death—I began for Rachel. As I do reflexively when I am split open I reached for her Shining Tribe, but what to do with it over the 49 days

I recently discovered the poem form of the cento in which a poem is composed entirely of lines by other poets. It’s an old form, dated from the third or fourth century. Cento is Italian from 100 so that can be the length, but I’ve seen contemporary poets use varying lengths. 

I decided to pull a Shining Tribe card each day and gather lines from the poems written by Rachel to start the write up of each card. The first cards were quite extraordinary: Death, High Priestess, and the Six of Trees (the Six of Trees was drawn on the day she was buried). I remind and promise you that these cards were drawn “randomly.” Here are the lines gathered from them to start the 49 day cento:

She swims in the evening

She rests in the sunshine

She talks with the serpents

She knows all the secrets

She walks like a singer

Through the forest of souls.

And so we begin on the path of 49 days. I’ll share the cento when it is done. The words will be Rachel’s so they will be marvelous. 

You can find out more about my 49 day practice here. You are invited to be part of memorializing Rachel by helping with the costs of putting up the headstone on her grave.

Leave a Comment

June 13, 2023, 12:35 am TarotSparks

She really made an impact on the modern Tarot community. I think there isn’t a Tarot enthusiast in this word that didn’t hear about her 78 degrees of wisdom. My book is completely underlined. 🙂

June 13, 2023, 7:16 am Carolyn Cushing

So true! But my book that is most beat up from all the love is the Shining Tribe Companion :).

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